09.26.13Gregory Ray

Top Drought Tolerant Plants for California

Dragon's Blood Sedum with shrubs of Dymondia Omit Heath A colorful and drought-tolerant groundcover pair: Dragon's Blood Sedum with shrubs of Dymondia Omit Heath.Drought Tolerant Lawn Substitute The yellow green of myoporum, a water-wise lawn substitute, sets off the silvery tones of olive trees.Drought tolerant shrub, Deer Grass Muhlenbergia rigens (Deer Grass) is a striking and water-efficient way to add shape to a landscape.Drought tolerant Yucca and Agave plants Yucca geminflora and Agave desmettiana add a sculptural note against the softness of rosemary.

Times have changed. Ten years ago drought-tolerant landscaping was a tough sell. Clients wanted green, lots of it, and that meant water-thirsty lawns and trees. While some of that attitude still prevails, landscapers are increasingly turning to drought-tolerant landscaping as a way to preserve resources and save costs.

It’s a good thing. January and February of 2013 were the driest on record in California history and experts in climate change think that big, intense wildfires will become the new normal. It’s clear that the need to conserve water is ever more critical.

With that in mind, I’ve rounded up my top choices for drought-tolerant tree and shrubs for Northern and Southern California. Like all plants, drought-tolerant plants need the right location and conditions to thrive, so I’ve broken down my choices to the best plants for specific uses and locations. By their very nature, these water-wise plants are low-maintenance. Just keep in mind their mature size when planting to avoid over-crowding or the need for pruning.

You’ll also find a list of great resources on drought-tolerant landscapes in this ValleyCrest blog post. So be sure to check that out.

Top Drought Tolerant Plants for Front Yard Landscaping in California

First up, front yard landscaping. There are a few basic things to consider when selecting plants for the front yard:

  • Choose plants that stay contained and compact; unwieldy and woody plants make the yard feel smaller and less tidy.
  • Go for plants that will please year-round, like evergreens or deciduous plants and trees with good branching structures.
  • Consider varied texture and color. Mix grass and agave (fine vs. bold) or blend green and variegated plants.
  • Go with plants that echo the architecture, i.e. Spanish vs. Cottage.

Northern California


  • Redbud – This thrifty-water-user produces brilliant spring blossoms.
  • Tabebuia – Sometimes called pink or golden trumpet trees because of their trumpet-shaped blossoms.
  • Arbutus ‘marina’ – A broadleaf evergreen tree that requires minimal care.

Shrubs and Groundcover

  • Myoporum ‘pink’ (as a lawn substitute) – Deer resistant, grows in sun or shade, and produces tiny pink flowers in the summer.
  • Callistemon ‘Little John’ – A mid-sized, red flowering evergreen shrub.
  • Coffeeberry – Member of the buckthorn family with shiny, dark leaves and reddish berries.

Southern California


  • Olea ‘wilsonii’ – Fruitless olive tree, hence no mess.
  • Carolina laurel – Spring-flowering with deep green foliage.
  • Rhus lancea – Commonly called African sumac. Evergreen with sword-shaped leaves.

Shrubs and Groundcover

  • Sedges and Salvias – Both add color to the landscape and are pollinators.
  • Agave – Tough as nails and adds nice texture and contrast.
  • Dymondia (as a lawn substitute) – Grows flat to the ground. Often referred to as mini gazania.

Top Drought-Tolerant Plants for Public Space Landscaping in California

It goes without saying that public space landscapes need to be hardy, but these spaces also need to be an attractive visual endorsement for the commercial or public property they surround. Public space landscaping also requires higher maintenance so keep these things in mind:

  • Choose plants that can withstand heavy traffic.
  • Consider the plant’s year-round appeal.
  • Select plants with high visual-interest, such as plants with
    showy foliage like succulents and purple grasses, or plants with showy bark like Manzanitas and Arbutus.

Northern California


  • Desert Willow – Called a “willow” because of the shape of the leaves. Actually related to the Catalpa.
  • Acacia aneura – Commonly known as “mulga” or “true mulga.”
  • Citrus – These trees take a lot of specific nutrients, but not a lot of water.

Shrubs and Groundcover

  • Lamb’s Ears – Soft, velvety texture. Deer resistant.
  • Groundcover roses – Baby Blanket or the ever-hardy White Meidiland are good ones to go with.
  • Bioswale plants like Juncus and Carex – Perfect for use in low points within the landscape to help clean the rain runoff before it enters our steams and ocean.

Southern California


  • California Bay – Large hardwood tree native to California’s coastal forests.
  • Catalina Cherry – Evergreen that produces red berries and showy, white flowers in the spring.
  • Crape Myrtle – Blooms mid-to-late summer in various shades of pink.

Shrubs and Groundcover

  • Ribes – The genus contains about 150 species, several native to California.
  • Achillea – Also known as yarrow, legend has it that it was gifted to the war hero Achilles by the Olympian gods to help quell the bleeding of his soldiers during the Trojan War.
  • Fremontodendron – Best time to plant is late autumn.

Top Drought-Tolerant Plants for Graded/Slope Landscaping in California

Most of the remaining developable land in California is located on hillsides and landscaping such sites takes careful consideration. In addition, much of this land borders natural open spaces so planting native allows the area to regenerate and flow seamlessy into neighboring areas, while conserving our valuable water resources.

Think about these basic factors when developing graded landscapes or slopes:

  • If exposure to wildfire is an issue, plant the most fire-resistant plants closest to structures and emanate outwards.
  • If possible, convert the area back to native plants (saves money, saves water, and saves the maintenance associated with more exotic landscapes.)
  • Think about tighter spacing and more showy plants to enhance trail edges and parkways.

Northern California


  • Oaks – Valley Oak and Coast Live Oaks are able to withstand the long, dry summers of California. It is best to plant Oaks young as any major change in its environment can weaken or kill an oak, no matter how healthy it is.
  • Redwoods – A California icon, adaptable to most soil conditions. Word to the wise: these are very fast-growing trees so plant with that in mind.
  • California Christmas Tree – Also known as Deodar Cedar. Allow plenty of room around these fast-growing trees to best display their stately shape.

Shrubs and Groundcover

  • Ceanothus – Composes about 50–60 species, try ceanothus yankee point  and Concha
  • Manzanitas – So many varieties to choose from. You’ll find a good sampling Tree of Life or Las Pilitas Nurseries.
  • Echium – “Pride of Madera” is the common name. Very showy and tough as nails.
  • Encelia californica – Commonly referred to as “California bush sunflower.”

Southern California


  • Native Walnut varieties – Juglans nigra, also known as Black Walnut, originated in Persia but thrives in Southern California’s dry conditions.
  • Oaks –There are over 20 species of native California oaks, from shrubby species that only grow a few feet to the mighty oak trees.

Many species of native oaks are not regenerating adequately in California, which in turn threatens the oak forests themselves and the wildlife that use oak resources.

  • Sycamore (Plant at base of slopes) – One of the largest hardwood trees. Great for shade.

Shrubs and Groundcover

  • Baccharis – In the aster family. Sometimes referred to as “brooms” because of the plant’s small, thin leaves.
  • Acacia – Named by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus after the African species Acacia nilotica.
  • Yucca or Opuntias – Great for adding focal points and sculptural shapes.
  • Deer Grass – Grows in dense clumps with spiky flower stalks. Creates striking forms in a landscape.

Dig Deeper and Learn More About Drought-Tolerant Landscapes

Along with increased awareness of the need to conserve water is an increased bounty of online resources focused on drought-tolerant landscaping. In addition to the resources listed in above-mentioned ValleyCrest post, here are a few more:

  • A great list of fire-resistant plants for Southern California
  • Another more extensive list of drought-tolerant plants with a SoCal focus
  • From the University of California, Sonoma Master Gardeners, a NorCal-centric rundown of shrubs, perennials, and vines that go from low-water to no-water

If you know of any more great resources for information on drought-tolerant plants for California, feel free to share them in the comments section.

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Gregory Ray

What do you call a landscape architect who understands how to design memorable environments that are also constructible and highly functional spaces? The answer is Gregory Ray. Greg recently came to ValleyCrest from the home building industry where he led the landscape program for a major home builder. Prior to earning his degree as a landscape architect, Greg founded a landscape construction company to earn his way through college. With over 30 years of experience, Greg has found his passion in reintroducing an attractive native plant palette in drought prone communities throughout the Southwest and Western regions.


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  1. Thursday, 11:36 twitter_LiteracyandTech

    Glad to see that some of our plants in NC are happy in CA. Also glad to see that the captcha code is readable again. Thanks, guys!

  2. [...] areas of the country to “rethink” their landscapes.  Regions such as Texas, Colorado, Southern California and Arizona are leading the way in seeking more sustainable landscapes.  Many times this quest [...]

  3. Tuesday, 11:23 colleen jara

    We are wanting to put in a small square of grass in the back yard for our daughter to do her gymnastic’s on. We are in San diego, about a mile from the beach, a drought, and would like something green year round. Do you have a sod that you recommend?

  4. Saturday, 12:31 Kimberly Williams

    Hi Greg
    I live in a gated community in Murrieta,Ca., much of our landscape is ageing out and dying. We are replacing with drought tolerant plants but it is looking ad hoc…not flowing or organized….our board chose not to use the services of a landscape specialist and it shows…any ideas on how to move ahead on relandscaping our community.

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